The opinions, beliefs, and arguments of this opinion piece do not align with the viewpoints or priorities of The Wesleyan Argus as a student-led institution. Not only are the arguments in this piece generalized and oversimplified, but they fail to contextualize the Black Lives Matter movement and the systemic, historical background behind police violence against communities of color in the U.S. The Wesleyan Argus believes that writing articles pertaining to Black Lives Matter and institutional racism in the United States requires a much more comprehensive, reflective lens.
A 20-year-old man walks into a church and massacres nine people, claiming that he was afraid that America was being taken over by Black Americans, citing American race relations as evidence. About a month later, a man wears a GoPro, tapes himself walking up to a local reporter and a cameraman, and shoots them both on camera, proclaiming racial injustice in this country as his motive.
Police officers are looking over their shoulders as several cops have been targeted and gunned down. The week before classes started, seven officers were killed in the line of duty; a few were execution-style targeted killings.
An officer I talked to put it succinctly: “If they want to come after me, fine. Just come at me head on. Don’t shoot me in the back of my head. I’d rather go down with a fighting chance.”
Is this an atmosphere created by the police officers and racist elements in society itself? Many, including individuals in the Black Lives Matter movement, believe so.
Or is it because of Black Lives Matter? Many believe that as well, including a police chief who made his remarks after one of his officers was shot and killed—he claimed that Black Lives Matter was responsible for the officer’s death. Some want Black Lives Matter labeled as a hate group.
I talked to a Black Lives Matter supporter, Michael Smith ’18, who recoiled when I told him I was wondering if the movement was legitimate. This is not questioning their claims of racism among the police, or in society itself. Rather, is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive? Does it have the potential for positive change?
There is evidence to support both views. Police forces around the country are making more of an effort to be more transparent, have undergone investigations to root out racist officers and policies, and have forced the conversation to the front pages after being buried on the back pages for far too long.
On the other hand, following the Baltimore riots, the city saw a big spike in murders. Good officers, like the one I talked to, go to work every day even more worried that they won’t come home. The officer’s comments reminded me of what soldiers used to say after being hit with IEDs in Iraq. Police forces with a wartime-like mentality are never a good thing.
Smith countered with, “You can’t judge an entire movement off the actions of a few extremists.”
I responded with, “Isn’t that what the movement is doing with the police? Judging an entire profession off the actions of a few members?”
Hence, my concerns that the movement is not legitimate, or at the very least, hypocritical.
It is apparent that the man who shot the reporter and her cameraman isn’t a representation of Black Lives Matter. The question is whether or not the movement is setting the conditions of the more extreme or mentally disturbed individuals to commit atrocities.
Smith explained further. “Yes, but the police have an established system of reporting the bad officers. BLM is decentralized, they aren’t as organized. You can’t hold the more moderate elements responsible for what a crazy person does in their name.”
Perhaps. But that doesn’t explain Black Lives Matter rallies from cheering after an officer is killed, chanting that they want more pigs to fry like bacon. That wasn’t one or two people. The movement also doesn’t want to be associated with looters and rioters, calling them opportunistic. But it is plausible that Black Lives Matter has created the conditions for these individuals to exploit for their own personal gain.
I warned in an article last semester that a movement that does not combat its own extremists will quickly run into trouble. The reasons why are now self-evident. If Black Lives Matter is going to be the one responsible for generating these conversations, then a significant portion of that conversation needs to be about peace. They need to stand with police units that lose a member, decrying it with as much passion as they do when a police officer kills an unarmed civilian.
Smith does have a point, though. An organization cannot be labeled based of a small percentage of their membership. There is a reason why so many have shown up to protests across the country: there is clearly something wrong, and wrong enough to motivate them to exit their homes and express their frustration publicly. That is no small effort. The system is clearly failing many, and unfortunately they feel like they will only be listened to if their protests reach the front pages of the news. And so far, they are correct.
But this principle needs to be applied universally. I know many of us here at Wesleyan realize that most police officers are good people simply doing a service for their community, and that there are only a few bad apples. But those chanting to fry the pigs seem to have missed this message.
It boils down to this for me: If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.
It is advice that I need to take myself. After the Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage nation-wide, a few liberals gloated in a conservative political forum that I like to read. They were surprised by the reaction: every conservative who responded was happy with the ruling.
I realize that moderate conservatives need to speak up more as well. If we had, gay marriage might have been legalized years ago. Instead, I got the feeling that a lot of moderate conservatives were afraid of speaking up about the issue and being labeled as a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
I also understand the frustration of moderate Black Lives Matter members, like the one I talked to, about being stereotyped based off of a few radical and vocal members.
Kim Davis, the misguided clerk who is refusing to hand out marriage licenses, is a perfect example of this. As a conservative, it is infuriating to see one clerk in one city out of the thousands in conservative states making headlines, when the rest are handing out licenses with no issue. One clerk is making headlines and is being held up as evidence that conservatives hate homosexuality. Kim Davis generated a couple hundred supporters, a very small showing.
Yet I am not innocent when it comes to Kim Davis. I could have gone down to the courthouse and joined the counter protest, holding up a sign that says “conservatives for gay marriage rights,” and made a statement that Kim Davis is not representative of the mainstream conservative views. I don’t blame those who can’t support conservatives for not being more vocally pro-gay rights, though many liberal politicians were also silent on the issue during the 1990s and 2000s.
Returning to Black Lives Matter, the country is nervously waiting to see what happens next. The next unarmed civilian to be killed, the next officer to be killed, the next radical racist to take their views to the next level.
At some point Black Lives Matter is going to be confronted with an uncomfortable question, if they haven’t already begun asking it: Is this all worth it? Is it worth another riot that destroys a downtown district? Another death, another massacre? At what point will Black Lives Matter go back to the drawing table and rethink how they are approaching the problem?
Bryan Stascavage is a member of the Class of 2018.